District lays off more than 3,700 employees
By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 7, 2013 10:38 AM
[Updated, 7:03 p.m.]
Calling the development "nothing less than catastrophic," Superintendent William Hite announced Friday that layoff notices have been sent to 3,783 of the 19,530 District employees, from teachers to food service workers, from counselors to maintenance staff, from community liaisons to lab assistants.
The layoffs will take effect July 1.
"Every aspect of the District will feel the impact – schools, regional offices and central office – along with employees ranging from senior administrators to support staff," said Hite.
He said the workers "are more than numbers: These are people – professionals – who play important roles in the lives of thousands of students throughout our city. They often do jobs beyond their titles and employee classifications. They are teachers, counselors, friends, protectors, and mentors to the children of Philadelphia.
"Without them, our schools will be just empty shells."
The number does not include central office staff, who have yet to get their notices. Hite could not give a figure for that, but the plan is to reduce active positions by 30 percent. The central office now has about 700 workers, but there are also many vacancies.
The 3,783 figure includes 676 teachers, 307 secretaries, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, 1,202 noontime aides, and 769 supportive services assistants, in addition to smaller numbers of workers in other categories.
At an afternoon press conference, Hite was flanked by four of the District's top principals, who described how the layoffs would impact their schools.
"These losses are serious and frightening to me," said Lisa Kaplan, principal of Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia, which has students from 29 cultures who speak 14 languages. "The education of our children in a happy, safe environment is at risk."
She worked hard to bring many programs into the school, and all of them are at risk, including a rock band that was invited to play at the American Federation of Teachers annual convention.
"They named the band Home, because that's where they feel safe," she said.
Dan Lazar, principal of Greenfield Elementary School, which is a block away from this week's building collapse on Market Street, said that the disaster just reinforced how important it is to have adults in the building who can respond to crises.
"Immediately after it occurred, our phones began to ring and didn't stop all day," he said. "What I would have done without a secretary and an SSA, I don't know." Supportive service assistants are part-time workers who help out in classrooms and wherever else they are needed.
Linda Carroll said that at her school, Northeast High, which has more than 3,000 students, counselors helped her students win millions in scholarships and her staff already works above and beyond.
"It's insulting we have to do this," she said.
And Otis Hackney, principal of South Philadelphia High School, noted that his school has come off the "persistently dangerous" list due to the hard work of teachers and support staff over the last several years. He is expecting to nearly double the number of students in his school as some 500 students from nearby Bok Technical School, scheduled to close, are expected to enroll at Southern. "And that number doesn't include 9th graders," he said.
Hite noted that this is just the latest in drastic steps that the District has taken over the last 18 months to cope with a dire financial picture. The District has no ability to raise its own revenue, and its latest round of money troubles started with the disappearance of federal stimulus money in 2011 and the General Assembly's decision not to make up the difference with state funds.
The District has already borrowed $300 million to balance its budget this year and will have closed 30 schools by September. In addition, it has frozen charter expansion. This year's budget, he said, already lacks essential programs, positions, and resources. Hite said that he and his senior staff have taken pay cuts. Nurses have been cut back.
"The School District of Philadelphia must live within its means," Hite said. "We can only spend the revenues that are given to us by the city and the state. This is the harsh reality of how that looks."
He has been lobbying regularly in Harrisburg and will continue to do so, he said. Leaders of charter schools are joining him because their revenue is dependent on the District's level of spending.
"I am doing everything in my power to prevent this budget from becoming a reality on July 1. I came to Philadelphia to preserve students’ rights to an education that prepares them for the world beyond our doors. Our current circumstances are deeply disheartening."
Hite sent an email to employees last night saying that, due to "catastrophic financial challenges," the District will be mailing "layoff notifications to many of our colleagues." The actual notices were mailed today.
Robert McGrogan, head of Philadelphia's principals' union, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, said that all principals attended emergency meetings Friday with District personnel to receive instructions on what to tell employees who receive the notices regarding health coverage and other issues.
Despite the intensive lobbying, District officials still have no commitments for money to close a $304 million budget gap. It is asking for $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city, and $133 million in union concessions.
The School Reform Commission adopted a "doomsday" budget last week that provides a principal and a core group of classroom teachers for each school and nothing else. It has already said it will lay off all counselors, librarians, art and music teachers, secretaries, and support personnel, including noontime aides, in the schools.
Some layoffs can be rescinded if more money comes through.
If positions are restored, seniority provisions in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract will trigger a massive reassignment of teachers, which can impact school stability -- an important factor in assuring student achievement.
The District's collective bargaining agreements require a set period of notice before layoffs can take effect. The new fiscal year begins July 1, and the city and the state are not required to complete their budgets until the end of June.
Hite said that if all the layoffs in a category are restored, then it is easier to prevent a shifting of positions as teachers claim different jobs based on their seniority. The teacher layoffs, he said, include teachers in virtually all categories and were determined based on seniority.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, met with District officials to hear the details just before the announcement. Earlier in the afternoon, he met with some reporters.
"Frankly, it’s just wrong that this is happening," Jordan said in a phone interview before the announcement. "If these cuts are allowed to stay in place, we will open something called a school in September, but it's wrong and bad for kids."
He noted that this isn't the only mass layoff in the District's history. Something similar happened two years ago with the initial disappearance of federal stimulus money.
Jordan said he was willing to make accommodations with the District to avoid too much staff instability as teachers exercise seniority rights if and when positions are restored. However, he said, that is harder to do if the restorations occur piecemeal instead of all at once.
"If they bring back 10 at a time or three at a time, it gets more difficult to navigate that," Jordan said. PFT members do have the right to say "now that I'm back, I prefer to leave my school and go to one five minutes from my home."
Before the SRC's budget adoption, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky suggested to his colleagues that they could adopt a budget that assumed some additional funds in order to avoid this scenario, but he was rebuffed. Dworetzky was the sole vote against the budget.
Mayor Nutter has proposed a package of taxes on liquor and cigarettes, as well as more aggressive tax collection, that would raise an additional $95 million for the schools. But he would need enabling legislation from Harrisburg for most of it.
Though Nutter and Hite have been lobbying hard, including a visit to Harrisburg on Tuesday to press their case, the Republican governor and legislature have been pessimistic about the chances of the District getting the $120 million it is asking for.
After the press conference, Hite said that he feels that the governor and legislature are responsive to "the skin we've put in the game," referring to all the actions the District's been taking to make ends meet.
Negotiations are underway with the PFT, but its contract does not expire until the end of August. The District is asking for a restructuring of compensation, as well as a 10 percent pay cut.
Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, described the development as “a devastating day for our city’s children. The doomsday cuts will turn our schools into glorified daycare centers, depriving students of the proper education they deserve.”
Librarian Carol Heinsdorf, who was a finalist for the Teacher of the Year award this year and has nearly 30 years with the District in six different schools, called it "a sad day for the District."
"When school libraries are deemed unimportant by the people in power and authority, our democracy is threatened," said Heinsdorf, who has often spoken before the SRC.
Counselors said that not only do they help students choose and apply to college, but deal with myriad problems.
"It's scary, what's going to happen," said Christine Donnelly, a counselor at the Academy at Palumbo. "We deal with kids with suicidal ideation. ... The teachers are great, but they are not trained. When they think a student is being abused, they call the counselor."
"I don't think they [the SRC] think we're expendable, but I think they could have done more to keep us," added Donnelly.
Teachers and parents leaving Mifflin Elementary School in East Falls on Friday were worried.
"It's going to hurt the kids," said parent and volunteer Maryann Salmon. She also noted that there isn't enough supervision in the halls as is and worries that it will be even worse after these layoffs.
Grandparent Earnest Walker agreed. "I think it's a shame, a disgrace. Everything seems to have a priority, except the children," he said.
Teacher Gina Spinelli said that "they're ruining the education system. Yes, staff are losing their jobs, but kids are really the ones that are being hurt."
Her colleague, Evan Kallish, was more optimistic. He said that the budget was not the "final word" and noted that the schools are still "waiting for the community, city of Philadelphia to come up with more money" and that "hopefully with a new budget, there will be a clearer picture."
Additional reporting by Sonia Giebel.
As you are aware, our District is facing catastrophic financial challenges. Last week, I presented an operating budget for Fiscal Year 2014 that excludes many full-time positions and programs amid city and state revenue shortfalls and uncertainty over personnel savings. I believe these positions and programs are essential to students and families in every school throughout the District. However, due to our legal and financial mandate to submit a budget by May 31, the School Reform Commission approved the spending plan based on known revenue. The District is aggressively seeking funding from the City of Philadelphia and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and currently negotiating with our labor unions to reach savings in personnel costs. The District can amend its budget as more funding becomes available; the City and Commonwealth must approve their budgets by June 30. Unfortunately, we do not have any commitments from City, Commonwealth or our labor partners, and we must prepare our District and schools for operating with the funds that we know we have. This will require massive, draconian reductions in programs and staff. This means that over the coming days we will be sending layoff notifications to many of our colleagues. We regret having to take these steps and will continue advocating for the funding that gives our students the education they deserve. On a personal note, I am profoundly upset about having to take these actions. I remain hopeful and will continue working tirelessly so that we will be able to restore many of the positions, programs and services that are crucial to maintaining nurturing and effective learning environments. I believe that our students have a right to adequate education funding and that our colleagues play an essential part in our schools' and District's success. Please contact your supervisor with any questions or concerns about the next steps in this process. I greatly appreciate your support and continued commitment to our students, especially in these very difficult days ahead."